Jay Roach has been making movies for almost exactly as long as I've been writing about them online. The first "Austin Powers" was one of the movies I wrote about in the early days of Ain't It Cool News, and the first test screening of that film is still one of my favorite test screenings I've ever been to.
When I saw "Dinner For Schmucks" a few weeks ago, I was one of the first to do so, and they put me on the phone with Jay Roach the next day. Our conversation started as an interview about his film, but since this is the first time we've spoken after 13 years of me writing about his work, at some point he started asking me questions. It's a loose free-roaming chat, and it was nice to finally talk to him. I hope I speak to him again for the "Saturday Night At The Movies" column, but for now, this was a great first encounter:
Drew: So thanks very much for having me last night. I really enjoyed the film.
Jay: Oh good, man. I heard. That’s such good news. I really appreciate it. You know, I used to read your stuff all the time and you’re a good writer so I was like “really? He likes…” because you’ve written some good things about other films too and it meant a lot. I knew you were there and I was “oh I hope he likes it”, so that just made me day. I really appreciate it.
Drew: It’s funny because kind of like the original, the title’s a big misdirect.
Drew: You really walk into it thinking, okay how much of this is going to be the dinner and it’s not at all, which actually ends up, I think, working for the film because by the time you get to the dinner the dinner is fast and it’s nuts and it’s as weird as it can possibly be.
Jay: Yeah. I tried to get through it. Yeah, because I had a lot to live up to, but I did love the….I was happy that Steve, you know, the writers came up with that tower of dreamers speech because it was such a lunatic speech but it seemed to give the dinner a purpose and until we had that I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get away with it. But once we had that, I was happy.
Drew: I wanted to ask you about Veber just as a starting point. He has always been like this amazing high concept comedy machine.
Jay: Yeah. It’s amazing isn’t it? Yeah.
Drew: I’m just blown away at how many films have been inspired by him and he’s got such a great comic mind. When did you see the original?
Jay: I saw the original about…let’s see I don’t know what year…I want to say three years ago. I had seen certainly 'La Cage aux Folles' and then I saw 'The Ballet' and I think -- did he also do 'The Closet?' I think he might have been at least a screenwriter on that too, but he’s incredible. He’s the Mike Nichols of France to me, you know? He’s a playwright and a filmmaker and a screenwriter who’s been just cranking out these great ideas year after year. And he finds a way to have a high concept comedy premise and predicament but there’s always a tremendous amount of heart and character based, you know, comedy and interaction. So yeah, it took about 2 years of working on a script before we knew we had something that dared take the credit of being inspired by his films so that, yeah, that was daunting. He’s very impressive.
Drew: How much of that process was with Steve and with Paul involved in their roles?
Jay: They were not involved until later. 2008 is when Paul got involved -- both of them actually at the same time while Dreamworks’s financing was trying to come together and Paramount then sort of took it on, we worked on the script with them in mind from that point on.
Drew: I think Steve is such a particular guy on film and not really the most immediate choice for every comedy [like this].
Jay: (Laughs.) Yeah. I would say that’s true, but he has an ability to take a character you know that might on the surface have a certain, I don’t know like a high concept design and then find all these other layers on it, you know? Certainly on 'The Office' and the '40-Year-Old Virgin' character is probably the best example of that.
Drew: That’s funny because I was thinking about that in the car this morning as I was thinking about the movie, and kind of reflecting on it, it’s that Steve humanizes the outrageous better than anybody.
Jay: Yeah, it’s true. And I mean this character was a challenge because it would have been very easy to just play him as being idiotic at every level and kind of goofy and there are certainly some elements of that but he is so connected to the personal reality of the guy that had a personal mythology whatever you want to call it, that he found ways to express this guy’s earnestness, his desire to just be helpful. Such a strong desire to be helpful that partway through trying to be helpful he forgets what it was he was being helpful about. And that eagerness and that sort of turned up focus on looking for the way the useful, it just lit up the character and to make that funny and grounded at the same time is? Y'know, that’s what he does.
Drew: I thought that there was a really great intro in the way the film starts with the mice--the diorama of the mice.
Jay: Yeah. I’m really proud of that. The character in the original film made matchstick sculptures of iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. And it was a really interesting way to show a character had way too much time on his hands and probably was somewhat lonely. But we were trying to look for something that was even a little bit more expressive to take it slightly a different way and we found these taxidermied squirrels dressed as two human boxing each other and there was a tryptic of them and the diorama and I found them on the Internet. And my dad was into taxidermy a little bit and it always creeped me out, but seeing taxidermied animals dressed like people and then you know the kids value of that you could see a guy seeming to be sort of pathetic and lonely and whatever and a little off-putting but then to uncover the idea that he used this hobby to actually to sort of cope with loss and loneliness and pain. I thought that could be another thing to add to what Francis had done, so we shot that and then we didn’t have the idea to do the opening credit sequence until later on in the shoot when we saw how good the mice were turning out for the dioramas and we knew we’d have a workshop where there would be this little mouse village. Originally it was just going to be a small town with all different kinds of characters as mice but I came up with the idea of having it be kind of Sunday in the Park dream date but what would he imagine that he and his wife would have done. And you could take it both ways, you could also imagine was this some kind of reenactment of what they had done. But I look at is as a fantasy. These are things he started doing after he got divorced or after his wife left him and so he imagined the perfect date in the park. So we just kept coming up with little vignettes for the mice to do. And then had our temp music editor put on Fool on the Hill when we first cut it together and it just clicked.
Drew: Well I also think it gives you permission to laugh with Steve, it’s never mean because it does that up front and he’s so obviously sweet. You never feel like you’re laughing at the guy. You’re looking forward to his appearance and he’s certainly going to wreck havoc but it’s not like you’re ever thinking, 'Yeah he’s the idiot.'
Jay: I’m glad you say that. I’ve felt that way too. And also he might come across that way on the surface that in certain ways because he doesn’t. He looks at things very differently when he gets hit by the car, he’s looking for ways to pay Paul Rudd for the damage, you know? And you might come to that conclusion but then as these layers of expressiveness. As these layers of expressiveness arrive though the film, you connect more and more to this idea of coping with loneliness and one of my favorite moments in the film is the moment where Paul Rudd has…you know Steve Carell is sleeping over and he walks out and finds those tryptics -- three dioramas of the mice dressed as him and his ex-wife and also Therman, reenacting the events where he gets married, comes home and finds her in bed with Zack’s character and then is left all alone. And you can picture a guy making these little mice and sort of posing them in these painful moments. I thought well, that’s coping.
Drew: You’ve got such a wonderful cast and it’s not even just Paul and Steve who obviously I really respect what they do, but the supporting cast—the guys at the dinner, the winners who show up. Bruce Greenwood, I mean it’s a great eclectic mix of folks in that room.
Jay: Yeah, I’m so lucky with those people. I love casting. This was a festival of casting. We had so many interesting characters and many of them were fully fleshed out in the script but many weren’t. And I just wanted to cast people who would work with us and workshop their characters and find layers and, you know, to have such a accomplished and sort of beloved fantastic actors playing all those roles. I mean, Ron Livingston in that role. He brought so much to what could have been such a thin part. And Bruce and certainly Zack and Jermaine. We really lucked out. You know David Walliams...
Drew: Oh my God. And yeah David Walliams is astonishing. He’s one of those guys who, I honestly can’t believe he’s not like one of the biggest stars on the planet because he’s so funny and he’s so invisible in everything he does.
Jay: Yeah, completely versatile. You’re right. Completely chameleon-like. And he had all those ideas that we…he came in and said, well I think maybe they wear white and he’s with a wife that he could have gotten any trophy wife but he has this person. He really loves her and they love each other and they’re so ridiculously lovey-dovey. I mean he had every idea about how that would play that maybe that they had matching ultra-blue eyes and his character design [ideas] which you see in 'Little Britain' and I’m sure in his other stuff too. Yeah, but that’s what we did. We got people who were not just actors but accomplished designers of characters and in some cases writers and creators of their own material from way back.
Drew: It’s great because he’s so visually disturbing. They are so in your face. In fact, I wanted to talk about in particular some of the mayhem in the film. I think that’s one of those comic skills that either you have or you don’t. Orchestrating that kind of chaos…
Drew: Just orchestrating chaos like that and making it funny and not just frantic I think is such a gift.
Jay: Oh well. thanks. I’ve had some practice. One of my favorite things that I’ve worked on always was 'Meet the Parents' and the kind of chaos of that dinner scene that we got to do with De Nero and Stiller leading up the urn breaking and there was a whole series of broad ideas. And then getting to really go to school with Mike Myers on creating a kind of tone that would allow for a certain amount of kind of loopy comedy. I used to love watching 'Mad, Mad, Mad World; and the original 'The Party.'
Jay: 'The Graduate' movie. You know and films like that where rules set up of a [series] of predicaments and variables in what the characters were going through that you knew that it was leading up to, but they would try to sort of make it live. It would seem like the inevitable conclusion to what was being set up, but it was always a little better than you expected. And that’s always my goal is just try to make it seem like it was meant to be but it was a little better than you expected. And that’s difficult when you’re going that big and that chaotic to have it not go off the rails and it’s a tightrope of tone. It’s very tricky sometimes.
Drew: Well yeah, you mentioned 'The Party.' I’m interviewing Julie Andrews tomorrow and I’m going to have to resist the urge to just pick her brain about her husband.
Jay: Her husband, yeah. It’s so funny. We thought about adapting that for awhile and I remember we sent a letter to Blake Edwards saying we’d really like to take you to lunch and talk about that and it was the writer who sent the note to him. And he wrote back this hilarious note saying, I’m amused by the fact that you have a writer. I don’t have time to meet with you but I’m amused that you have a writer. We didn’t. We improvised most of it, or something like that. And it was just such a great response. A great way to say “no thanks and good luck”. It made me laugh. He’s a hero of mine.
Drew: Well, I can see that in your work. When you look at his films like 'The Party' or 'The Pink Panther' movies, they weren’t just the camera pointed at something funny. He was a participant and his staging was so particular and the sort of pop-cartoon worlds he would create.
Jay: And 'The Pink Panther' was a real inspiration because those things look almost like they’re improvised -- those bits. But they’re so carefully engineered. Every bit of that timing. Every single thing. Every weird fall or explosion or sort of strange chaotic disaster, it looks like it’s just happening right as it’s going, but I can tell you that it takes so much time to work out the timing and the physics and the geometry. It’s amazing how many super talented people too get involved in helping you stage it all.
Drew: It seems like there are various schools of comedy there and you’ve worked sort of with guys from different groups. You’ve worked with Ben Stiller. You’ve worked with Mike Myers from 'SNL.' You’ve worked with various schools. What is your particular approach when you sit down with somebody to sort of meet in the middle? How do you guys even approach the idea of blending comic styles and comic [sensibilities]?
Jay: Well this one is a little easier. With 'Meet The Parents' because I just knew that it had a very specific point of view and a kind of anxiety dream that set the tone, every decision about everything was wrapped around that controlling idea of 'what do you do when you meet your potential future father-in-law and you find out he’s a human lie detector or you’re just a born bull-shitter, you know?' Everything fell from that. 'Austin Powers' had its own set of somewhat eclectic influences between all the Bond films but then also 'The Pink Panther' films but, then some jet-set pop-art sort of Italian heist movies. There was a lot weird influences in those films, but it always for me just comes down to if you can get the audience connected to the sort of personal mythology—the world of the character who’s got the most elaborate and unique view on life, once you have that, a set of rules sort of evolve. And you know, this film was a little trickier that way because I knew I had to deliver something fairly out there for the dinner, so you know it was coming up with those rules and then still being free enough to try anything anybody came up with on the set and having people like Zack and Jermaine and David Walliams and certainly Paul and Steve who are all just amazing improvisers come up with, for example, that whole psychic mind control fight. There was a scripted suggestion of what that might be, but nobody really knew what would happen. I thought they would just stand across the table from each other and sort of make gestures at each other. And the sort of wildness of their improvisations, I had to figure out if that fit those rules. And as I worked on the character that Steve plays and saw how committed, how eager he was to help and be useful that he would quickly adopt somebody else’s mythology and join in it as earnestly as he would, then that somehow gave me permission to sort of stretch the tonal rules a little more then. And so it sounds complex or seems like a very complicated sort of web of ideas, but when you’re just in the character’s mind, and I try to get in the character’s mind with the actor, a certain weird logic comes out and some things fit and some things actually don’t and you just have to be a good selector from all the other choices. So, it’s a long really ridiculously long way of saying I just try and have it all be derived from the character and the character’s predicament. And once you can convince the audience that that’s what’s going on, they’ll go a long way with you.
Drew: Now in terms of the improvisation, did this ever swing back and forth across a ratings line? Was there ever an issue with that in terms of just how far the actors could go?
Jay: We did have some things, which I was actually surprised because having worked on “Austin Powers” where there were so many double entendres and so many, you know we had the whole entire penis run where there was a spaceship that had a phallic shape and we cut to eight different references to phallus. I just thought we could get away with more than that nowadays in a PG-13. And there were a few things but the MPAA was really actually, I don’t know, 'constructive' in helping us figure out which things would fly and which weren’t and how we could adjust things. And we didn’t lose any of the big jokes. Ultimately, none of the things that were the best things that the actors came up with -- like Steve riffing on warts and Steve improvising that description of what he witnessed Zack Galifianakis doing with his ex-wife while he was hiding under the bed. That got pretty spicy and there were a couple of things where we didn’t go that far because of the MPAA, but that whole description of him curling up in the fetal position after sex and then drawing a face on…you know. But that whole thing was on the edge, but they let us do it.
Drew: Even the idea you got away with the conversation about what his wife lost. I was a little blown away. That and Walliams with his wife’s favorite finger. I think you guys tap danced right on the line in a really…
Jay: Yeah, it’s definitely on the line.I’m happy that whole description of his wife’s female anatomy got in because I’m actually hoping that it’s good for mankind to know a little bit more about womankind if you will. I hope it actually inspires a few men who wouldn’t necessarily otherwise figure some of that out. Partly based on friends I had in high school back in New Mexico who just would crack me up on their theories of what was pleasurable to a woman.
Drew: I know Rudd is a big comedy nerd. I’ve talked to him about things that he watches and he’ll recommend like something that only five people saw when it aired on Channel 4 at 3:00 a.m. and he’s like voracious for this stuff. Was he really excited when some of these guys showed up like at the dinner for winners?
Jay: Oh man yeah. Particularly working with Jemaine because he’s in so many scenes with Jemaine. That was really a breakthrough for him and a really great bit of news when he heard who was playing Kieran. And Paul is such a good actor. I really am just so happy to see what he did with this part because it was, you know, sort of the straight man. Did you see the French film?
Drew: I did, yeah.
Jay: Yeah. I mean that guy was good and there was a very particular direction Francis went in just having as big a jerk as you could find and then the joy of watching is life get turned upside down. But I always thought there was potential to play the character as someone who has a really bad consciousness. You know really selfish, self-centered materialistic person who is that more by from a sort of self-centered obliviousness than a genuine meanness or a total lack of empathy. I saw 'Role Models' and I saw what a great job he did with a slightly snarky character and how much you still liked him, you know? And I well could it be a little bit more of a visiting angel story where the wild card character causes not a transformation but an ability for the sort of better side of a person to come out. And if you felt that that better side was there, wouldn’t that be a part of the suspense of the story that when and how will that come out? I mean if his soul could go either way, he could stay and do the devil’s work or he could have a little more…get a little more in touch with his higher self. I don’t know. I just thought it’s probably a little sappy to think of it that way but Paul? He’s great at playing unevolved guys and yet you root for him to find that other side. And it’s funny. He’s not just a straight man at all. That great run he does with the me you know vs. the me you don’t know. I mean it reminded me of like a Jack Lemmon thing or old Cary Grant stuff in comedies. I just thought it was really impressive. I’m glad people are going to see him this way.
Drew: Yeah, it’s funny because there’s not a lot of guys who fit that niche right now. My wife will laugh at Will Ferrell movies, I mean there’s a lot of comics that she likes, but she swoons over Paul Rudd. Like 'Clueless' did it for her.
Jay: That’s so funny you say that. My wife has been on me since 'Clueless' like I’ve actually worried about how big of a crush she’s had on him. And she has been on me to work with him for so many years. And he knows about that. He knows that part of what’s kept me chasing him has been my wife’s pressure.
Drew: I think do you know what it is though…..
Jay: It’s funny you say that. I think women love him, you know? He doesn’t get to play the real manly romantic lead. He often plays like he did in 'I Love You, Man' or 'Role Models' like the guy who’s’ a little slubby. Like to play a man’s man and I think he really pulled that off in this film. I think he did a great job. I hear he’s really good in Jim Brooks’ film too so I’m excited for the year Paul’s going to have.
Drew: And I think every wife has that Paul Rudd moment. We spent a week on “Sara Marshall” and we went to Hawaii when they were shooting that and Rudd wasn’t shooting. He was just at the pool all day with his son. And so she would take my son to the pool all day with him. At the end of the week I don’t think she wanted to leave with me.
Jay: Yeah, I was going to say that doesn’t sound like a good predicament to find yourself in—your wife around Paul Rudd and his kid around the pool. That sounds like serious trouble.
Drew: So thank you so much Jay. I actually would love to talk to you again sometime. I’m doing a series of pieces this summer every Saturday night called Saturday Night at the Movies about the influence of SNL on film.
Jay: Oh wow. That’s a great topic. I am fascinated by that institution.
Drew: Well, and I would argue there’s no bigger mark that any television show has ever made on pop culture.
Jay: Or any one particular bit of pop culture affecting the rest of pop culture.
Jay: I desperately wanted to make a movie about 'Saturday Night Live.' I even pitched one to Lorne once about doing sort of a paper chase of 'Saturday Night Live' where a rookie would come into that. Because I’d heard so many stories from Mike and Mike McCulloughs and Adam McKay and all these…I mean it’s like a benign cult. You know, you go in and sort of drink the Kool-Aid and then you get involved in this just magical comedic place. And for him to not just affect all of us every Saturday night on super relevant topics, but then to spit out all of, you know, a huge proportion of the best comedians and comedy writers
in all of our business. I mean that’s a great…that’s a really worthwhile thing to do. I applaud you. That sounds great.
Drew: Later in the summer….
Jay: The only direct experience I have is I got to go an actually write myself for one night—overnight on the cold opening that we did with Sasha on 'Borat' because we were told we could do it about 36 hours before he did it. So we arrived on Friday, wrote late, wrote some into Saturday and then Sasha did it and I got to be in the writer’s room when we were cooking it up and even that was one of the great experiences of my life. But I haven’t been on the set for a week or anything like people talk about. That must be incredible.
Drew: Oh no, I would love to talk to you about it. “Austin” if possible because I think Mike is, in my opinion, Mike is one of the like five or six guys you have to talk about when you talk about SNL making the jump to movies. Him and Eddie and Murray...
Jay: Absolutely. I completely agree. And you also have the Dr. Evil/Lorne connection, too, so.
Drew: It’s kind of amazing.
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